Saturday, August 7, 2010

Four Letters

The phrase, “four-letter words” has become almost synonymous with so-called “dirty” words. We’re going to change that trend right here, right now, by discussing a few of my favorites.

Amok is a fun-to-say word. I overuse it to describe anything “messy and scattered.” Although it should be reserved to describe the result of a murderous frenzy, I wouldn’t get to use it as often as I’m wont if I had such reservation. It’s a rare import from Malay, amoq.

Wont/habit is another I like because I have to consciously round my mouth so it doesn’t sound like “want,” but not so much that it sounds like “won’t.”

Acai (ah-sigh-EE) is the new “global super fruit” exported from the Amazon since 2000 in response to “the anti-oxidant craze and rain-forest chic,” according to the NYT. It’s the high-energy fruit of a species of palm tree (coconuts are from another) and a long time staple of the Brazilian diet, getting more expensive for the locals as demand increases. Look for it in your smoothie shop or cosmetics counter. It’s a high-energy word too: has both a cedilla under the “c” making it sound like “s” and an accent on the “i.”

Although a cedilla (written with a cedilla under the “c”!) turns me on, I really go nuts over an umlaut, those two little dots used over “a, o, and u,” and pronounced with pursed lips. Uber is a perfect umlaut-word, adopted from German and currently very fashionable in English, to mean very,very/over the top. The expression, uber chic (oober sheek) is a terrific four-letter word meeting of German and French in English. It could only happen in our glorious language!

I like doff (dahff) because it tickles me that it and its antonym partner, don, are contracted forms of “do off” and “do on” but somehow escaped ending up as “d’off” and “d’on”. They are used mostly with clothing items. I remember how men used to doff or lift their hats as they greeted someone with a “How do you do?” Now, I think doff every time I see a man in a restaurant wearing a cap. I want to scream, “doff it.”

Words ending in “j” are uncommon, so hadj, meaning religious pilgrimage, especially of a Muslim to Mecca, jumps onto my list. Since 9/11, as we learn more about Muslim culture, we are becoming familiar with many more Arabic words, e.g., jihad.

Four-letter words beginning with “i” are relatively few; my short list includes idyl, imam, impi, iwis and iglu. But iris is my favorite as Iris was the Greek Goddess of the Rainbow. It’s no wonder our eyes, and that wonderful genus of Spring flowers with its variety of colors, took her name.

And finally, my “f” word … I like fret. It has three distinct meanings, and so is a good representative of polysemous words.

I could go on and on. But why don’t you pick up where I’ve left off? Go through a letter’s worth of pages in the dictionary, and notice a few four-letter words that strike you as those mentioned here do me. Better yet, get hold of the Scrabble Dictionary which categorizes all words by length. You’ll be amazed at how many interesting four-letter words you’ve never heard.

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